In this blog, the second in a series on Interrogating Decentralisation in Africa, Emilly Comfort Maractho reflects on the differing success of public primary education in Uganda.
Last year, as I addressed the Nebbi Makerere Students Association at a function organised to help students making the best of their time at university, I spoke to them about the unique challenges students from a marginalised and peripheral district like Nebbi face, particularly women. I told them that the university would however open doors for them. Which I truly believed.
However, I was contradicted by the next speaker, who asked “to what extent can we say children who attend school in Nebbi today will, through their hard work, succeed in life as we did?” Many, in fact, have suggested most children from poorer rural households, however intellectually gifted, struggle at the bottom. This was the first time that I realised even I had been privileged. My mother had been a civil servant, so she could afford to send me to neighbouring Arua district, where I attended a fairly good school by the region’s standard and privately paid for my university tuition. In fact, when students from disadvantaged areas succeed, they do it despite the government, rather than because of it.
The quality of education in Uganda
For a long time now, the conversation on the quality of education in Uganda has been ongoing in media, policy, and academic circles. Uganda introduced free primary education in 1997 (pdf) with the assumption that free education would ensure access to primary education for all, in line with constitutional provisions for the right to education.
The country also tried to ensure that those who completed primary education would proceed to secondary education.Primary education is the mandate of local governments, which are responsible for a number of functions through the department of education, such as planning and management, supervision and inspection, and infrastructure development. The central government supports local government units with funds. The delivery of education is executed in partnerships involving local governments, civil society organisations, public private partnerships, or private entities.
A comparison of education delivery in Nebbi and Arua districts
Yet, various reports have indicated (pdf) mixed results (pdf), with great achievements in enrolment and widening disparities in performance within various socio-economic demographics, among those who attend public and private schools, and across districts. This has often made me wonder why some districts perform better than others. I decided to look at what could explain the difference in local government’s performance across two districts that were given similar powers.
I examined primary education delivery in Nebbi and Arua districts of West Nile region, two districts remote from the centre which were formerly a single local government unit. They share many features, except one, Arua performs better than Nebbi in primary education delivery. After interviewing senior local government staff, members of civil society organisations and triangulating their responses with government, think-tank, and media reports, I found out that local government performance in education is linked to the nature and strength of partnerships between various actors. More precisely, in the case of remote areas like West Nile, education has more to do with presence of key actors – such as donors and private investors – than with local government per se. Local governments that succeed do so through the strength of partnerships with donors and the private sector.
The role of central government in education
This is hardly surprising, given that central government controls at least 95 per cent of district financing, decide on development priorities through the pre-determined indicative figures to guide budgeting, and slaps a ban on local government recruitment and asset financing (like purchase of vehicles), regardless of individual district needs. As such, local governments have little power and freedom to decide on what their priorities might be, and even if they do, even less power to act upon them.
This is also symptomatic of local governments’ failure to achieve meaningful local revenue collection, again due to centralised revenue collection that takes most of the lucrative sources of revenue to the national treasury. The consequence of which is that local governments cannot make any contributions to primary education delivery, and the quality of public services suffers, in effect because central government disbursements are inadequate.
What is the future for public education?
Public schools remain the only option for access to education for many children. Where public schools are run down, then educational opportunities for the poor are non-existent. Government has limited capacity to deliver primary education through local governments alone. Increasingly, the nature of partnerships between local governments and other stakeholders has benefited some at the expense of others. Both private sector investment and donor monies flow to certain districts, often the same ones due to capacity issues, and not to others. This calls for greater coordination among central government, local governments, the private sector, and donors in defining where partners are most needed, so that available funds can be distributed more evenly across districts. If nothing is done to address these problems, we may be witnessing the demise of public education.